They are stories oft told by a generation of wizened Singaporeans — wistful tales of picking vegetables from the backyard for the day’s meal, or of stuffing their young noses with cotton wool to filter the fetid odours from the pig farm nearby. They used to catch their own fish for dinner, they often say, and forage for clams while walking along the shore.
Somewhere along the line, however, progress got in the way. As building after soaring building sprung skyward, Singapore transformed into a sprawling metropolis, leaving behind mere memories of a time when its people managed to live off the pint-sized land.
Happily, as things often have a way of doing, Singapore’s local agricultural movement seems to be coming full circle — not to mention in the most modern of ways. Appraise the menus of the swankiest restaurants in town and you’ll invariably find dishes featuring produce of local provenance. Frog’s legs, barramundi, quail, goat’s milk, chickens and eggs — the variety is impressive and the quality, say many chefs, is on par or sometimes better than their imported counterparts.
“I think there is definitely more interest in where our food comes from, now more than ever before,” says Executive Chef Peter Rollinson of Halia restaurant at The Singapore Botanic Gardens. “Lately, I get more diners asking me about the origins of the ingredients on their plates.”
Indeed, thanks to food activists such as American author Michael Pollan and farm-to-table proponent chef Dan Barber, diners are increasingly conscious and curious about their food sources and the carbon footprints that might follow in their wake. And although the popular assumption is that Singapore simply lacks the natural resources to yield quality produce, an entire belt of successful farms along rural Kranji is testament to the contrary.
Rollinson, for one, makes it a point to use local produce in his menu wherever possible. Though the food he serves at Halia is unmistakably rooted in European sensibilities, the Australian chef uses local and Asian ingredients to reflect Halia’s verdant surroundings and demonstrate the island’s unrecognised ability to produce quality ingredients.
On his regular menu are dishes such as Frog “Porridge”, in which the frogs’ legs from Jurong Frog Farm are fried in an aromatic mix of garlic and butter, served on a bed of oats suffused with the a blend of ginger, coriander, spring onions and garlic, and topped with a delicate mound of fresh salad leaves. It is a dish that would sit comfortably on any international fine dining restaurant menu and yet its every ingredient, bar the oats, are grown and produced in Singapore.
“Every now and then, I also do a quail cannelloni, using local quail that Uncle William brings around,” he adds. “Uncle William” is part of Lian Wah Hang Farm, Singapore’s only game bird farm started by William Ho’s father Ho Seng Choon in 1954. Today, the farm rears and sells game birds such as quail, guinea fowl, pigeon, Muscovy duck and goose to restaurants, hotels and supermarkets all over the island.
“What I really like is that the farming community in Singapore is small and close-knitted. You meet one farmer and he introduces you to another guy from down the road,” says Rollinson. “So you build a relationship with the growers and really get to know their products.”
Beyond getting to know the products, chefs like Andre Chiang have also gotten involved in the way their supply of produce is raised. The Taiwan-born chef, whose eponymous restaurant ranked fifth in this year’s San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, works with Toh Thye San Farm to produce 120-day-old French Sabres chickens.
The farm’s local chickens are typically raised for about 80 to 85 days before slaughter, but Chiang was looking for a better tasting chicken — ones that are ethically raised, allowed to age slower and for a longer period of time.
Toh Thye San’s third-generation scion Kenny Toh welcomed the idea. He began importing day-old French chicks, raising them for about 110 to 120 days. “Meat from chickens that are allowed to age longer is generally tastier,” confirms Toh. “The chicken meat doesn’t have the foul, gamey taste of their younger selves.”
For Chiang, this difference in taste is integral to ensuring his dishes live up to his exacting standards. The chickens occasionally appear on his menu, sometimes smoked then charcoal-grilled and served with different textures of beet; other times braised in red wine to highlight the meat’s tender qualities.
Today, the farm also sells its French Sabres chickens to upscale restaurants like Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands and Gunther’s Restaurant. “I think it’s important to forge a good relationship with the farmers you buy from so you get direct feedback from them,” says Chiang. “For example, they’ll tell you that something is not good that week because of the rain. That’s how you ensure that you always get the best produce.”
“It’s also important that the relationship is reciprocal. A chef must demand the best from his suppliers and get involved so that the produce can be improved. In turn, the farmer has to be willing to try something new.”
For other chefs like Singaporean Immanuel Tee, making it a point to use local produce is a way of giving back to the country’s agricultural community. The chef de cuisine of modern European restaurant Keystone grew up around his father’s vegetable and flower farm in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. With agriculture in his blood, his first decision as chef de cuisine was to implement a policy of buying local produce wherever possible.
“I’ve seen firsthand how hard people in agriculture work and this is a way for me to do my part in supporting them,” he says.
Tee, who trained under Chiang at Jaan Par Andre and Restaurant Andre, also uses chickens from Toh Thye San Farm and buys his vegetables from Quan Fa Organic Farm, which was started in 1999 by Liao Quan Fa. The farm in Lim Chu Kang cultivates a vast range of organically grown vegetables such as kai lan, sweet potato leaves, watercress and various species of lettuce, as well as eggplant, gourds, beans and herbs.
At Keystone, Quan Fa’s organic daikon, wasabi cress, baby corn and red cabbage are used in dishes such as terrior, where they are variously pickled, poached and blanched to create assorted textures and presented artfully on a plate with painterly swathes of pumpkin and sweet pepper puree.
Eat What You Sow
Singapore’s finest restaurants aren’t the only place to partake in locavorism. In fact, it is increasingly easy to eat locally at home, as companies like Quan Fa offer delivery services to private customers. The farm harvests its crops in the morning, packs and sends them out in refrigerated trucks by noon. “The food reaches our customers that same day,” emphasises Liao’s 25-year-old son Junjie, who is in charge of the farm’s business development.
Kin Yan Agrotech is another local farm along Neo Tiew Crescent that grows and delivers wheatgrass, mushrooms, roselle fruit, edible cacti and aloe vera products. Like Quan Fa, most of Kin Yan’s organically grown vegetables are harvested, packed and shipped on the same day. Short of growing your own vegetables, this is probably as fresh as it gets in urban Singapore.
That said, growing your own food in our concrete jungle isn’t as far-fetched an idea as it might seem. The “grow-your-own-food” movement is quickly burgeoning here, championed by social enterprises like Edible Garden City Project and Comcrop. Aside from providing consultancy services for residences and corporations looking to start their own herb or vegetable gardens, Edible Garden City Project organises community-centred initiatives such as its pilot community garden at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall.
The garden has been a hit, drawing Singaporeans of all ages and walks of life to plant and nurture vegetables that anyone and everyone can enjoy. The group’s Co-Founder Bjorn Low says that the plot, though small, is meant to serve as an educational space. “It is where we can impart our skills to the people who come here so that they can grow their own urban gardens at home and in turn pass on their knowledge to friends and family,” says the agricultural consultant.
Meanwhile, Comcrop, an initiative by social enterprise The Living! Project, promotes urban farming in what it calls “marginalised land” (“Places that people don’t see as useful,” says Jeremy Chua, who oversees Comcrop’s agricultural technologies) which it procures around the city. Its pilot test farm was a 400-sq-ft space at the National Youth Council Academy Greens where volunteers were encouraged to maintain and harvest rotating crops grown through an aquaponics system. The objective is to promote self-sufficiency and eco-friendly consumption since eating local means your ingredients don’t have to travel thousands of miles to get to your plate.
As an extension of this, Comcrop — with support from the National Youth Council — will also operate a 6,000-sq-ft commercial farm on the rooftop of *Scape in Orchard Road. The facility is slated for launched in the later part of the year and will produce about 15,000 fresh vegetables a month, says Singaporean Co-Founder Allan Lim. One of the initiative’s main purposes is to help F&B enterprises create great food from local produce, so consumers can look forward to munching on more local fruit and vegetables at more restaurants in the near future.
Indeed, the time has come to throw out the old excuse that there isn’t enough land or natural resources in Singapore to grow our own food. After all, if the country had the chutzpah to transform itself from a sleepy fishing village to a modern global metropolis, it can certainly harness that same pluck to revamp itself into a latter-day urban farm.